Review Summary: "We use anything, man. I don't have favourites, and I don't want habits either."
Following this modus operandi, Autechre, perhaps more than any of their musical brethren, successfully tread the middle ground between ancient and modern, analogue and digital, composition and improvisation. Over the course of a generation they’ve explored each of these fecund landscapes to the horizon and beyond, all the while manipulating music into contractions that, whilst quite amazingly uncomfortable, never cease to amaze with their richness and variety. And, to their everlasting credit, Sean and Rob have never been stingy with their bounty; that some of their work divides opinion so sharply is testament to their adventurous, uncompromising nature (and perhaps their willingness to imbue machines with compositional powers).
From the sodden squelches of T ess xi
to the gargantuan drifting ambience of album highlight bladelores
, organic sounds prevails throughout; a far cry from the cold robotics that characterise a sizeable portion of their discography. The usual suspects are all here; creeping, mutated arpeggios and enormously fat synths being propelled along by rumbling claptrap rhythms that occasionally require a calculator to deconstruct. An extraordinarily diverse palette of sounds (garnered no doubt from the fertile fields of Max MSP) provide a range so wide the two hour running time starts making a little more sense; all these sounds need time to arrive, to expand, to grow and to die. Regardless if tones swell and fade, sparkle or explode; each is given its own breathing space, allowed to play out and die out in a process that, given the length of the album, seemingly goes on ad infinitum. A myriad of twisted metal parts are forced together into skeletal contraptions underpinning melodies that squirm, crawl, bound and soar through the ether, puzzling, pleasing and astounding in equal measure. Large chunks of the record feature the stunningly awkward drum programming that has become a staple part of the Autechre sound, one that perhaps more than anything ensures they remain far out in the leftfield of contemporary electronic music.
If one has to compare Exai
with anything in recent memory, The Seer
, funnily enough, forms the natural parallel. Whilst both Autechre and Swans stand as polar opposites to each other musically (the calculating, intellectual Apollinian versus the ecstatic, physical Dionysian) both demand great attention from the listener before offering any reward in return; as artists they craft enormous colossi of sound that require blind faith as much as rational attention. And both have finally delivered creations that are the awesome culmination of their respective artistic visions.
Faith nonewithstanding, it is not therefore surprising that Exai
is a purely rational creature at heart; emotion inducing melodies remaining far and few between and when feelings arise, they are invariably disturbingly dreamlike. Yet whilst this album lacks the instantly captivating melodies that supplied tracks like Treale
with such a jaw dropping dénouement, it makes up for in supremely intelligent instrumentation. It is precisely here that Autechre outdo themselves. Enormously satisfying moments abound, provided one listens carefully enough
; the interplay of lead lines surrounding the breakdown of 1 1 is
never fails to impress, whilst the all out carnage of spl 9
makes for a stunning mind*** of epic proportions. After a career of countless experiments, some masterful, others less so, it is with this work that the duo hit the nail on head with stunning force and aplomb.
That said, there is no doubt that this is an immensely difficult listen; all the more so since the music is simultaneously painfully obvious and devastatingly subtle. This can be infuriating, but hell, doesn’t all great art overflow with contradictions? As for the answer to the inevitable question; could it be downsized to make its digestion a slightly more manageable task? Possibly. But then Samson got his hair cut, and looked what happened to him. No, Exai
is far better off unleashed and unrestrained, unapologetic in its grandeur.
Onanites seeking instant gratification: look elsewhere.